A new report has suggested that global leaders in sustainability are failing to make the most of the potential of the web for their CSR reporting and general communications. Mallen Baker considers the report's findings and implications
A new report about online CSR reporting names ENI as the global leader that does the best.
There's no doubt that the essence of the message is true. Companies are not yet making the most of the medium. That fact is probably not only applicable to their CSR comms, but their overall use of the web. The state of the art is still evolving, after all.
But in some of the details, I think the report is misleading, and it bears further examination.
Let's start with some points of agreement. Lundquist, the authors of the report, have made a number of assumptions that I would generally endorse.
A website should be comprehensive, reducing the need of its key users to go elsewhere. It should be user-friendly, with clear and intuitive navigation and no jargon. It should focus on fact and case studies more than self-promotion and commercial messages.
We hit just one challenge with the assumption about audiences. Lundquist say that "a website must speak to all audiences using language that is accessible to the general public not just for experts". This is the nub of the dilemma.
The CSR report/website is usually the only communication a company produces where it believes it is aiming to use one single communication to speak to all audiences at once. Most people that are professional communicators would say that such an attempt was doomed to failure.
You use the language of your audience. You address their priorities. If you do so openly, you can't be accused of giving inconsistent accounts of the facts. But you will make the most of your communication.
This makes CSR reporting hard to do. But it then immediately challenges some of the other assumptions that Lundquist make.
Each of the websites were analysed against 76 different criteria.
How were these drawn up? With a survey of "184 CSR professionals and sector experts from 30 different countries".
This would be fair enough, if the only audience - or even the key audience - for these reports were these professionals.
By the way, 14% of that number were university professors and students. Another 30% are CSR managers from companies, checking out the competition. 15% are consultants, looking to sell CSR services to companies. Only SRI analysts (11%) and journalists (12%) really have a considerable claim to be primary audiences for this information as stakeholders, interested observers as the rest of us may be.
But what about the other audiences?
Having said that the sites should be in accessible language for different audiences, little further reference is made to what might make the websites effective tools for those audiences.
So, for instance ENI came top of the poll. I went to have a look at their site. Lots and lots of information - obviously huge effort has gone in, and there is a wealth of data.
But this is a site for professionals. There is no attempt here - as there is for instance in the Cadbury report - to make content accessible for different users. Cadbury does not make it into this list.
Consider your audience
As for accessible language - I fed a few paragraphs of the report into a site that measures 'the Gunning Fog Index'. This estimates what reading age you would have to be to understand the text. A standard CSR report tends to come in at 16 - which is too high. The Economist aims for a Fog Index score of 12.
I aim for 12 or under. You should too.
ENI's report kicked in with scores between 19 and 26. 26 is the highest score I've ever seen.
Don't get me wrong - they have a fine report. But how should we really be using the web to get messages out?
We have to put aside the assumptions made by one specialist audience, and go back to first principles.
Communication should be measured by whether or not it reaches the right audience, and they understand the message in the way intended. What they then do with that, of course, is up to them.
Let's be realistic
Most CSR professionals will not read most CSR reports. They read a cross-section, usually focusing on the most important companies, or the reports that have technical innovations in how they report. They may be a key audience for a company like Unilever, or British American Tobacco. They are not, however, for the majority of companies.
SRI analysts may be a key audience for those companies that are publicly listed. So the depth of data may need to be there. But who are your key audiences, and what do you want to tell them?
This does not feature in the Lundquist report. If you look at the factors it lists as weaknesses of companies' current CSR online communications, lack of clarity about who their audience is, and lack of imagination in making the message reach out to those audiences - do not feature.
Instead we get fairly mechanical stuff, of interest only to CSR geeks.
Such as: No explicit link between CSR and corporate governance; don't show details of a profile from an SRI ratings company; don't show how CSR staff fit into the organisation chart; don't make a reference to the UN declaration on human rights or ILO standards.
These factors are, to my mind, a big 'so what?'. Employees, customers, suppliers - that is, direct stakeholders - are probably going to care a lot more about what the company has done, and what it says it is going to do.
You could do a great job at answering those latter points, and yet still do poorly on the rating in this report.
Then there is another tricky question - how much interactivity should there be in a report? This one is pretty damning in observing that few companies allow people to take part in open, online feedback and discussion.
This is, after all, the era of the blog. We are used to being able to add our comments, however critical.
Personally, I agree that I would encourage companies to be bolder in experimenting with this. But equally, I don't know yet how much this is in demand from key audiences, as opposed to us geeks.
Neither does anyone else, by the way. Because - to date - nobody has done a survey to ask customers and employees of companies whether they want to see this.
The Lundquist report is an interesting read, and it is only because it takes a set of thoughtful criteria and tells you what they are that we can have this discussion. I am glad they did it, and I hope they will look towards ways of widening it out in the future.
But their dilemma has been the lack of resolve behind the CSR community to actually talk to audiences external to itself. Until that is better addressed, these surveys will always miss the mark.